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Climate change, food security and sustaining peace

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‘We have succeeded at keeping famine at bay, we have not kept suffering at bay’, said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres while briefing members of the UN Security Council on 12 October. Explaining the impediments to an effective response to the risks of famine in north-east Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen, and, Guterres named conflict as a root cause of famine.

Guterres is right. In fact, a recent report on the state of the world’s food security—jointly published by Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), World Food Programme (WFP) and World Health Organization (WHO)—puts the number of people affected both by hunger and conflict at 489 million. That is about 60 per cent of the 815 million people suffering worldwide from hunger and malnutrition. The report further details that the connection between conflict and hunger is especially notable ‘where the food security impacts of conflict were compounded by droughts or floods, linked in part to the El Niño phenomenon’. There appears to be a general consensus among UN agencies that conflict, as a root cause of hunger and malnutrition, needs to be addressed. Evidently, this is easier said than done.

Complex conflict, comprehensive peacebuilding

Building peace in post-conflict countries is rarely, if ever, straightforward. International actors often face insurmountable challenges when programming and implementing their projects. In addition to stopping violence, the aim of their work is to set states and societies on a peaceful path. Yet, the food-security situation clearly shows that the indirect, long-term effects of war further exaggerate this challenge. Many of these challenges relate to political and social aspects of post-war countries, such as human rights abuses, reconciliation and justice, as well as economic recovery and public health. Environmental and climate change expose post-conflict states further to new risks, exaggerating the human costs of war long after active combat has ceased.

The Lake Chad Basin is sadly one of the key examples of this dynamic. The ongoing insurgency in the region and the continued shrinking of Lake Chad (which is the main source of livelihood for millions of inhabitants) are causing a massive humanitarian crisis, intensifying the fragile security situation and increasing the cross-border displacement of populations. The Report of the Secretary-General points out: ‘Some 10.7 million people across the Lake Chad Basin region currently need humanitarian assistance, including 8.5 million in Nigeria.’ According to the report, 7.2 million people currently suffer severe food insecurity in the region, of which 4.7 million are located in the north-eastern Nigeria.

The interconnectedness of food security, natural resources, peace and conflict is not new to anyone familiar with fragile and conflict-affected states. The question is how to reverse this negative spiral. It is instrumental to focus on the questions of how interventions are interacting with other factors, what negative side effects may appear and how to reduce or, even better, prevent them. But, most of all, the reversal of this spiral involves developing a mindset that goes beyond ‘do no harm’ doctrines. In practice, that means focus and emphasis must be placed on opportunities and synergies to equally end hunger, reduce poverty, foster a healthy ecosystem, support sustainable natural resource management and, ultimately, to help sustain peace.

How can governments and international agencies better respond to food security in post-conflict settings?

Acknowledge complexity. Involved actors must acknowledge the complex underlying dimensions of the problem. While Guterres emphasizes conflict as a root cause, he downplayed the role of environmental and climate change—both in his current and previous assessments. His previous assessment of the humanitarian crisis around Lake Chad fell short of addressing and acknowledging the underlying environmental dynamics that significantly affect the water and food security of local communities in the region and make them vulnerable to insurgent recruitment.

Improve assessment capacity. There is a need for more integrated risk assessments that focus on climate and environmental factors, but also social, political and economics. For example, climate-related security risks are not just related to climate but are part of larger social–ecological processes and interactions that need to be better understood. The assessments must seek to understand the role of women, local contexts and the inclusion of marginalized groups, especially with regard to access to natural resources.

Be prepared. Both states and international state actors have to understand the state–society relationship—before, during and after crisis. One key way governments can increase their ability to cope with shock is to simply be prepared. This is of course difficult in conflict-affected states and, admittedly, often one of the actual sources of post-conflict fragility. Yet, supporting government efforts to focus on the state–society relationship is necessary, because a state that focuses on the delivery of services to those it is suppose to serve is a state that cares about its inhabitants. Service delivery is fundamental in two ways: one, it reduces vulnerability and increases resilience; and two, it reduces distrust towards the government. Without a certain level of trust between state and society, shocks cannot be adequately addressed.

Think holistically. Lastly, there is a tendency, especially among UN agencies—often due to their mandate—to treat issues such as food security and natural resources as technical issues in need of a technical solution. This approach is doomed to fail because, fundamentally, access to food, land and other natural resources—like the conflicts themselves—are deeply political processes. They need to be treated as such.

Future Steps

Unquestionably, within the past year with Guterres at the helm, space has opened within the UN system to more frequently discuss the questions of sustaining peace and conflict prevention. The strategies above are some examples that enable national and international actors to successfully get at the root causes of food insecurity in conflict-affected states. Each of these steps must explicitly include a focus on gender as a crucial, yet often neglected, dimension. Most importantly, in addition to understanding risk, there is a need to further shift the discourse of intervention programming and implementation towards opportunity. Will such an approach stop conflicts and prevent people from taking up arms? Absolutely not. But the evidence is clear that it will make it much harder for insurgent groups to mobilize people for their cause.

First published in SIPRI.org

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Do The Harmless Pangolins Have To Become Extinct?

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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The pangolin is a timid little creature going about its nocturnal ways, slurping up ants and termites with a tongue longer than its body.  It has no teeth.  Its defense when threatened is to roll up into a ball shielded by its scales — an armor plating that is the cause of its woes.

Ranging in size from 3 to 73 pounds, there are eight distinct species of pangolin — their name originates in the Malay word ‘penggulung’ meaning the one that rolls up.  In 2014, the International Union for Conservation of Nature redlisted all pangolins, classifying the four Asian species ‘endangered’ — of these, the Chinese and the Malay (Sunda) are critically so.  Similarly threatened by decreasing numbers, the four African species were listed ‘vulnerable’.

The principal reason for their plight is their defense mechanism, the scales, which in some cultures are claimed to hold magical properties.  Thus in parts of Africa, a woman interested in a particular man is believed to be able to control him by burying a pangolin scale outside his front door.  In China and East Asia, the scales are considered to have medicinal benefits.

The meat is also considered a delicacy.  They have long been hunted in Central Africa for bushmeat but the numbers lost are not easy to calculate.  In 2018, an estimate of 400,000 to 2.7 million killed for food was reported by researchers using three different methods — hence the wide range.  The lead author of the study, Daniel Ingram of University College London,  expressed greater confidence in the lower number.

The third Saturday in February, which fell on the 16th this year, is World Pangolin Day.  Unfortunately, there was little cause for celebration as the following customs seizures from just the previous two months manifest.

On December 6, 2018 Malaysian customs officials had to incinerate 2.8 tons of pangolin scales of Cameroon and Ghanaian origin.  In January, Ugandan authorities confiscated a large store of scales along with ivory of Congolese origin.  Also in January on the 16th, 8.3 tons of pangolin scales were seized in Hong Kong from Nigerian cargo bound for Vietnam.  A raid on a warehouse in Koto Kinabalu, Malaysia, by customs officers on February 7 yielded 30 tons of frozen pangolins and pangolin parts.  

Adding to all of this is the largest haul globally in five years as reported by Singapore authorities on April 5th.  They discovered 12.9 tonnes of pangolin scales from an estimated 17,000 animals along with 390 lb of ivory in a shipping container destined for Vietnam.  Sadly, these efforts by authorities also attest to the ineffectiveness of the ban on all international trade in pangolins two years ago (2017) by the Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). 

Making matters worse, the pangolins are mammals and (unlike rabbits!) happen to be slow breeding.  The gestation period is 5 months and mothers seldom give birth to more than one pangopup a year.  Pink and soft, the newborn pups are just 6 inches long, weighing about 12 ounces.  Their scales begin to harden the next day.  The baby is suckled for three months but insects supplement its diet after about a month.  It then takes two years to reach sexual maturity, all of which accounts for the slow replacement rate.

Their defense to roll up into a ball helps them very little for the poachers simply bag them.  Moreover, biologists know little about their physiology and behavior, knowledge that might help to protect them.  Being nocturnal and very shy, they are difficult to track in the wild.  And adding to the challenges of research, they unhappily stress easily and usually die in captivity.  

Poaching is almost impossible to stop unless the profit incentive stemming from the dubious medicinal benefits of the scales is removed — the April 5th seizure was worth $38 million.  The scales are the principal source of demand and as they are made merely of keratin, the same as in human fingernails and hair, it then becomes a matter of education to curb demand. 

For the gastronomic aspects, one example to follow could be shark fin soup.  It is a delicacy in China and so was expected at official banquets, until banned in July 2012 following pressure from environmental groups.  Sales have since plummeted.

Do pangolins have a chance?  Let’s hope so, or the little fellows will go the way of the African Northern White rhinoceros before we even get to know them.  Sudan the last white rhino male died on March 19, 2018.  As is often the case, it will take a sustained effort by environmental groups to persuade the Chinese, Vietnamese and other East Asian governments to act.

Author’s Note:  This article first appeared on Counterpunch.org 

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Dangerous Plastics Are a Threat to Us and Future Generations

Meena Miriam Yust

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Every day people make decisions about what to eat, sometimes opting for colorful fruits and veggies, sometimes finding the smell of bacon irresistible.  At the end of the day people are controlling their own health.  What is remarkable though, is the possibility that something one swallows today could have a lasting effect on future offspring – children, grandchildren, great grandchildren.  New research is finding a generational impact of certain chemicals.  This time it’s not the bacon we’re worried about – but plastics and the toxins within them.  

Twenty years ago, researchers  at Washington State University discovered accidentally that the now-infamous bisphenol A (BPA) was leaching out of plastic cages, harming the mice within.  The contamination caused abnormalities in mice eggs and fertility.  Numerous subsequent studies found BPA exposure affects adult fertility and health across species, including monkeys, fish, and humans.  Known to decrease sperm count in rats and to cause breast cancer in women, BPA was banned in 2012 by the FDA from being used in baby bottles and sippy cups.  Yet BPA is still used in many products, including epoxy resins used to coat canned foods.  A 2004 study of 2,517 people found that 93% had detectable quantities of BPA’s by-product in their urine. 

Since the toxic effects of BPA came to light, several replacement bisphenols were quickly brought to market by chemical companies and are now in widespread use.  Twenty years after the BPA toxicity discovery, by remarkable chance, the same Washington State University lab recently noticed again that something was amiss with their mice.  This time the mice were housed in cages comprised of replacement bisphenols, largely believed to be safer than BPA.  The researchers subsequently performed controlled studies with several of the replacement bisphenols including BPS, a widely used replacement.  

Results demonstrated that the new bisphenols behaved similarly to BPA, causing health problems including detrimental effects on fertility in both males and females, reported in Cell Biology in September 2018.  Scientist Sarah Hunt explained, “This paper reports a strange déjà vu experience in our laboratory.”  What the lab discovered once with BPA, it was seeing again with the replacements.  Perhaps most troubling were the long-lasting effects of the toxins.  Even if all bisphenols could be magically eliminated today, the toxic effects would still last about three generations through the germline of people already exposed.  This means bisphenols ingested today could affect the fertility of one’s great grandchildren.

The bisphenol case demonstrates that FDA bans do not necessarily solve the root problem.  Chemical companies tend to roll out similar chemicals to those that have been banned, because this is the easiest way to bring something to market quickly.  But more testing is needed before chemicals are released into the environment.  Long term problems such as generational infertility and cancer risk often cannot easily be examined in clinical trials, and environmental effects are not rigorously analyzed prior to release.  

The Washington State University study also proved that damaged and heated plastics are particularly deadly, as the damaged cages leached more toxins.  This should serve as a warning for those who microwave food in plastic containers for their families.  And it should remind us that discarded plastic bottles degrading in oceans and rivers are releasing toxins that cause irreversible infertility.

The current estimate of plastics in our oceans is approximately 150 million metric tons. By 2050, the amount is expected to ‘outweigh the fish,’ according to Jim Leape, co-director of the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions.  A recent study has determined microplastics (small plastic particles) are present in every river and lake in Britain.  And they have been found in tap water, everywhere from the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, DC to the Trump Grill in New York.  A study of 159 drinking water samples on five continents found that 83% of those samples were contaminated.  Plastics are everywhere, from the highest mountains to the deepest parts of the ocean and Arctic.  Nanoplastics less than 50 nanometers long have even been found in plankton, which is ingested by fish that humans eat.

Scientists are finding that plastics are disrupting marine mammals’ ability to reproduce.  Many forms of plastic including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and Bisphenol A are endocrine disruptors, meaning they affect the hormonal systems of animals.  An orca of adult age called Lulu, researchers recently found, was barren as if she was a juvenile.  Analysis revealed very high levels of PCBs in her lipid tissues.  One orca pod off the coast of Scotland has not produced a calf in 25 years.  Despite bans on PCBs 30 years ago,  toxins remain in orca mothers’ milk, and are passed from mother to baby.  A recent study published in the journal Science predicts that half the world’s population of orcas will be extinct in just a few decades due to PCB poisoning.  Researchers have also found that despite the PCB ban in Europe, levels of PCBs have not decreased, indicated that they may be leaching out of landfills.  Hormone disruptors have also been found to impair male frogs’ fertility, and to cause tadpoles to more frequently develop ovaries rather than testicles, thus skewing the proportion of males to females.  Similar problems have been found in fish.  Reproductive risks associated with endocrine disrupting chemicals span species.

Bisphenol A is known to decrease sperm count and to cause cancer in many species.  Its counterpart replacement plastics (BPS, BPF, BPAF, BPZ, BPP, BHPF… to name just a few), researchers have recently discovered, are no better.  Whether these pollutants have already affected humans is anyone’s guess, but it would be wise to view statistics during the time period since plastics became popular, starting in the 1960s, and to see if there is a significant trend over time.  

It appears there is.  Notably, a 2017 study found that sperm counts per milliliter declined by more than 50% from 1973 to 2011, with total sperm counts down almost 60%.  Two other recent studies have demonstrated that over the past few decades in the U.S. and Europe, both sperm count and motility have decreased.

The United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) recently debated a proposed legally binding treaty to address plastic pollution.  One objective of the proposed treaty was to phase out single use plastics by 2025.  Norway also suggested a global agreement for handling ocean plastic pollution.  Sadly, the U.S. was the largest voice against the proposed treaty and the proposed global waste disposal plan.  

Eventually a non-legally-binding agreement was reached in which the U.S. watered down the language to “significantly reduce” plastics by 2030, eleven years from now.  One UN delegate described the Trump representatives as “trying to remove all targets and timelines.”  

Meanwhile, the U.S. has been exporting large quantities of plastics overseas for years, historically mostly to China.  In the previous year, 70% was exported to China and Hong Kong.  But in 2018, China banned imports of plastic waste.  Since the ban the U.S. has looked to poorer nations for its overseas garbage dump.  Unearthed, Greenpeace’s research group, has found that in the first six months of 2018, almost half of U.S. plastic waste was sent to developing countries: Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam.  U.S. plastic waste exports to Thailand went up by nearly 2,000% this year.  

Most developing nations do not have sufficient recycling infrastructure to properly handle plastic waste.  On Earth Day 2018, the top producers of mismanaged ocean plastic waste were ranked by tons of waste.  The top five after China were Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.  In some cases as in parts of the Philippines, recycling is done laboriously by hand, picking bottles out of large dumps.  As this is very difficult and time consuming, large quantities find their way into oceans and rivers.  Sadly and not surprisingly, the Pasig River in the Philippines transports approximately 72,000 tons of plastic downstream, and has been declared “biologically dead” since 1990.  Instead of helping these countries to develop recycling infrastructure, we are sending them more toxic waste.

We might think we are kicking the can down the road by sending plastics overseas but they will wash right back up on the Hawaiian and California coast.  Beachgoers might witness solid litter washing ashore, or unearthed from the stomachs of dead whales.  Or they might not notice the pollution  — instead unknowingly consuming microplastics in their next Ahi Tuna sandwich.  On the East Coast, one might encounter them in a glass of water at the Trump Grill in New York.  There is only one world sink after all.  Tossing poison to the other end of the tub only works for so long – it will inevitably, over time, mix and wash back to your side of the water.  And when one of us is diagnosed with cancer, do we really know the cause? 

It is instructive to remember the orca Lulu, a mammal like us, who no longer produces eggs.  And to remember that if sperm counts continue to decline at the present rate, they will soon reach levels where it becomes difficult to have children.  By then, the world’s water supply may be irreversibly contaminated and an enforceable treaty will be too late.

Postponing a legally binding treaty may put us on the path of our fellow mammals the orcas, half of which already face inevitable extinction worldwide.  And we can not forget the tragedy of the orca Tahlequah, who last summer carried her dead calf for a record 17 days and 1,000 miles in mourning. 

Eleven years may be too late.  

Author’s note: this piece first appeared in CommonDreams.org

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We’re gobbling up the Earth’s resources at an unsustainable rate

MD Staff

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George Monbiot, a correspondent for Britain’s The Guardian newspaper and known for his environmental and political activism, has made a surprising call for people in the United Kingdom to cut the use of cars by 90 per cent over the next decade.

Many will balk at this idea but it is perhaps sounding somewhat less bizarre after the release by the United Nations of a new report which paints a scary picture of the rate at which we are gobbling up the Earth’s resources.

The global automobile industry requires huge amounts of mined metals as well as other natural resources such as rubber, and the switch to electric vehicles, while a necessary move to curb air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, is not without some adverse environmental consequences: large-scale lithium mining for the batteries required to run electric vehicles could cause fresh environmental headaches.

UN Environment’sGlobal Resources Outlook 2019, prepared by the International Resource Panel, examines the trends in natural resources and their corresponding consumption patterns since the 1970s. Its main findings:

The extraction and processing of materials, fuels and food contribute half of total global greenhouse gas emissions and over 90 per cent of biodiversity loss and water stress

Resource extraction has more than tripled since 1970, including a fivefold increase in the use of non-metallic minerals and a 45 per cent increase in fossil fuel use

By 2060, global material use could double to 190 billion tonnes (from 92 billion), while greenhouse gas emissions could increase by 43 per cent

Besides transport, another major consumer of resources is the rapidly growing building sector.

Cement, a key input into concrete, the most widely used construction material in the world, is a major source of greenhouse gases, and accounts for about eight per cent of carbon dioxide emissions, according to a recent Chatham House report.

Both concrete and clay manufacturing (for bricks) include energy-intensive processes for raw material extraction, transportation, and fuel sources for heating kilns. 

Building quality sand is currently being extracted at unsustainable rates.

Urgent energy transition needed

Sixty-six per cent of global energy is provided by fossil fuels (World Bank, 2014). UN Environment Acting Executive Director Joyce Msuya has called for speeding up the energy transition from fossil fuels—coal, oil and gas—to renewable sources of energy like wind and solar.

“We need to see a near-total shift to renewable sources of energy, which have the power to transform lives and economies while safeguarding the planet,” she says in her letter to participants of the recent UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya.

The call comes just a few days after Norway’s US$1 trillion sovereign wealth fund–the world’s biggest–signalled that it intends to sell some of its shares in oil and gas companies, dealing a symbolic blow to fossil fuels that will reverberate for energy companies and their investors.

“Now more than ever, unprecedented and urgent action is required by all nations” to reduce global warming, says UN Environment’s Emissions Gap Report 2018. “To bridge the 2030 emissions gap and ensure long-term decarbonization, countries must also enhance their mitigation ambitions,” it adds.

The International Resource Panel was launched by UN Environment in 2007 to build and share the knowledge needed to improve our use of resources worldwide. The Panel consists of eminent scientists, highly skilled in resource management issues from both developed and developing regions, civil society, industrial and international organizations.

UN Environment

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